August 22, 2019

Summer in Belize: Learning to Swim and Starting Fires

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Upon stepping out onto the black tarmac of the airport, the humidity wrapped around me like a welcoming hug. “Ah,” I thought to  myself, “ What a blessing to be back in beloved Belize.”

I was greeted by Aldair, Keila and their 8 month old daughter, Grace. At this time, I was informed about the unexpected news that my co-leader, Anne, who was supposed to start the workshop as she had a wealth of experience, had unfortunately missed her flight, and that I would be starting the workshop. I felt like I had just been thrown into the deep end, and even thought it was into the deep end of the beautiful Caribbean ocean, it was a deep end nonetheless — my first time as a learning leader in Belize and I had to quickly learn how to put on swimming wings.

I awoke the first morning of the workshop with a hesitant excitement. The excitement was rooted in my passions for assessment and obedience to God’s calling to international development. The hesitancy rooted in the lie that I could potentially do more harm than good.

I was unsure at first what I would be stepping into. I wasn’t sure what teachers’ knew or how they incorporated assessment into their classrooms. As much as I had done extensive research about Belize and its education system, I don’t think that there was much that could prepare me for the stories of the incredible teachers that I got to walk alongside.

In the opening hour together, we engaged in some activities that enabled me to assess teachers understanding and set goals for our time together.

As I spoke, I was concerned because I thought I could tell what they were thinking, “what is this young white, lady doing here.. She thinks she can teach us?” The Belizeans who I knew to be warm like their weather seemed unimpressed by my futile attempts to equip them.

It is funny how the enemy (sometimes ourselves) can try to fool us into thinking we are not worthy to be a part of God’s plan, but we are.

We spent a good chunk of time on the first day reading through assessment articles from educators that I have found to be influential in aligning the heart behind my assessment with a Christian purpose. This seemed to challenge teachers as they began to open themselves to the possibility that assessment can be a blessing. 

But it seemed that a moment of hope was quickly snagged and replaced by rising frustration. I could sense the tension in the room as the discussions continued — teachers were attempting to reconcile this new framework of restorative assessment within their own reality. Unsettling, murmuring, twitching in seats; my heart beat faster as I questioned my ability to do justice to these teachers and to the notion that assessment is a powerful tool that truly can empower all of our students to reach their God-given potential. 

As we continued our conversations about assessment, it became quite clear to me that a lot of the frustrations and concerns that teachers had were not with our discussions but with the Belize education system itself. Teachers were frustrated that they were constantly trying to teach in the “right” way when the schools around them were teaching to the test and thus outperforming their own students. They were concerned about the idea of incorporating a variety of assessment types or about letting students choose how to present their work, when at the end of the year they just had to take a standardized test anyway. It gave me a picture of what some teachers were experenciening: that they felt stuck in a hole with this beautiful idea of assessment waiting for them on the outside, but they had no tools or strength to climb out.

It was at this point that we used the circle we were sitting in to share our experiences of assessment. Was this planned? No. Was it necessary? Yes. Not all teachers shared, but I could tell by the nodding heads that there was consensus. Stories ranged from personal experiences growing up, to struggles with students, government and parents. We were vulnerable. We opened our hearts and tried to remind ourselves about the purpose of Christian Education. We challenged each other to consider if this purpose was at the root of all we do with our students, especially assessment. We encouraged each other to share the light of Christ with our students and remember that our call to nurture disciples supersedes worldly expectations and standards. The brick-wall was starting to come down; the idea that we needed to teach or assess according to a standard or to compete with other schools was weakening during our time together.

I am grateful that we took some time to build a relationship and understand each other, as it gave me the courage to change the planned trajectory of the assessment portion of the workshop. We took intentional time to share stories about assessment, and engage in activities that modelled assessment. By the end of day two, there was a buzz in the air. While the frustrations were still there, I could tell through conversations and formative strategies that hope was seizing all of our hearts again which was evident in the exit slips I received. One 3-2-1 exit slip that teachers had to fill out said:

“This is sparking a flame in me. I now know that the change in assessment here in Belize needs to start with me.”

And this, in turn, rekindled a flame in me. 

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